Sex, Consent, and True Power

Uncategorized May 09, 2022

There is a lot we don’t understand about how women experience sex.

We know a great deal about the role of sex in reproduction. We know a great deal about male sexual arousal and discharge. We even know a great deal about male performance issues—we have studied erectile dysfunction in depth, for example, and developed resources so that men can continue to enjoy sexual arousal and discharge throughout their lives.

But there is a lot we don’t know about sex where the experiences of women are concerned—where female sexual arousal and discharge are concerned. Aside from reproduction, a great deal remains to be understood about how women experience sex. Nearly half the abstract for a paper titled “Women’s Orgasm” is devoted to the difficulties women have experiencing orgasm and the potential causes, but while ”orgasm problems are the second most frequently reported sexual problems in women,” to date there are still “no pharmacological agents proven to be beneficial beyond placebo in enhancing orgasmic function in women.”

I’m assuming that the first most frequently reported sexual problem reported in women (note that the author did not say by women) has to do with the ability to conceive and bear children.

I’m also assuming that orgasm problems are the first most frequently reported sexual problems in men, and that conception is a very distant second.

The ongoing assault on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy speaks to a persistent and unconscionable double standard: Where men are concerned, our patriarchal culture is very interested in whether they are having a good time, but where women are concerned, that culture is only really interested in whether we can conceive and bear a child.

It is absurd to imagine that we are less interested in having a good time with sex than men are. Procreative sex is an incredibly minuscule aspect of most women’s sex lives! I myself have been having sex for more than 40 years, and never once was it with the intention of conceiving a child.

As someone who has been enthusiastically enjoying non-procreative sex for more than 40 years, I would like to report that sex can be extraordinarily fulfilling, fun, empowering, emotionally satisfying, and physically rejuvenating. That is the case whether I am having sex with myself or with someone else. As someone who finds anatomy and physiology almost as interesting as I find sex, I would love to provide you with detailed, scientific explanations for why I find sex as empowering, rejuvenating, etc., as I do. But as I mentioned, we haven’t yet begun to conduct meaningful research in this area.

The article I cited reports that “It is generally accepted that female orgasms are not essential for reproduction. Any benefit for various aspects of female biology is, as of yet, unclear,” and then offers some speculation on possible benefits of female orgasm that I find almost completely unrelatable. Here are some of the ways in which orgasms certainly seem to benefit my female biology:

  • While an orgasmic climax may seem to be the culmination of a gradual crescendo of physical and emotional tension, it seems to release significantly more accumulated tension than was generated by the sexual experience. To me, this suggests that orgasm is a highly effective means of physical self-regulation—i.e., it’s an excellent means of stress relief, and we know how harmful excess stress can be our biology.
  • Engaging in masturbation is a pleasant and informative means of exploring, enjoying, and affirming my own body. It improves my kinesthetic awareness, and it helps me better understand how my biology responds to stimulation and regulates stress. This awareness and understanding help maintain my wellness, as I will be more likely to notice if anything goes out of balance in a way that might signal the need for an intervention.
  • Engaging in partnered sex is a satisfying means of expressing pleasure and joy with others. This helps me to feel physically and emotionally cared for and appreciated by another person, and to feel caring and appreciative towards them. Our differences enable us to explore ways of moving and sensing our bodies that we might not have discovered on our own. The experience can help us develop confidence, feel affirmed by someone we like, expand our communication skills, and enjoy a sense of mutual trust. It seems to me that there is likely to be a strong correlation between feeling pleasure, joy, confidence, appreciation, and trust, and measurable metrics of wellbeing like blood pressure, sleep patterns, digestion, and so on.

So I am a big fan of sex, in all its infinite variations. Sex is an endlessly fascinating form of entertainment and stress relief. Sex can deepen our self awareness and our connection with others. Sex essentially costs nothing and requires no equipment. All we really need is enthusiastic consent on the part of all participants, and access to effective contraception, STD prevention, and family planning.

Unfortunately, we currently live in a culture that often fails to instill us with respect for one another’s agency and right to consent. Consequently, it not only fails to provide equitable access to effective contraception, STD prevention, and family planning—it increasingly seeks to prevent access to the resources that we need to fully enjoy and express our own sexuality.

I often hear it expressed that sexual assault and harassment have everything to do with power, and little to do with sex. But consider what “power” means in this context. It means exploiting, dominating, and/or controlling another person sexually. What the predator gets out of it is a sense of power that comes from imposing their desires on others, expressly without their consent and overriding their ability to resist—whatever arousal or sexual enjoyment the predator derives is secondary to the desire to subject people to their will.

As I asserted, our culture often fails to instill us with adequate respect for one another’s agency and right to consent. Sexual assault is among the consequences stemming from this failure. Our best hope of reducing sexual assault therefore involves educating ourselves and our children about agency and the right to consent.

My understanding is that children first develop a sense of agency at a pretty early age. This is what they are exhibiting when they start responding “no!” to every request made of them—it’s in part a celebration of the discovery that they are able to have an opinion and a will of their own, one that differentiates them from their parents and expresses their developing personality. How their sense of agency develops, or fails to, depends on how their parents and the other adults in their community react to those cries of “no!” Respond compassionately, and the child learns that it’s okay to object, even if things don’t always go their way. Respond punitively, and the child learns that expressing a preference carries painful consequences. The latter lesson can yield problematic consequences. The child may grow up feeling they are not entitled to express a preference at all, i.e. with little agency or expectation that their consent (or lack thereof) will influence what is done to them. Or the child may grow up to feel like it’s their turn to lord their preferences over everyone else, without their consent… in the case of a sexual predator, preferably without their consent.

In other words, agency and the right to consent are not necessarily things that are instinctive, but rather things that must be learned. A child’s parents and teachers must reflect that child’s agency back to them and respect their right to have an opinion about what is done to them and what they want. Otherwise, how are they to learn to effectively say “no!” to anyone or anything? Explaining consent to them when they are old enough to conceptualize on that level is also very important, but they may already have lost some connection to the visceral impulse to reach for the things they want and reject the things they don’t. To the extent they do still feel those impulses, they may be indoctrinated to believe that the proper and virtuous response is repressing or overriding them, in order to behave in ways that are convenient and acceptable to everyone else. They learn to inhibit these impulses in the name of discipline, or “will power.”

“Will,” or “power,” in this sense, is not what I would call real power. It’s just the internalized overriding of our own consent, an act of forcing ourselves to do things we would prefer not to. Real agency means having the presence of mind to fully experience and accept our visceral impulses, and then calmly decide whether and how to follow through on them. Those who act on their visceral impulses without such consideration fail to obtain the consent of those around them—they bulldoze past it on the way to seizing what they desire and taking control of their environment and everyone in it. That may make them feel powerful, and they may be widely perceived as powerful, but this sort of domination is also not what I would call real power. When you cruelly disregard the humanity and agency of others, you corrupt your own humanity and agency in the process. It’s the classic Faustian bargain

Here’s what makes me feel powerful: The ability to experience my own visceral impulses, calmly decide whether and how to follow through on them, and use my voice to share my decisions and experiences when I so choose. For example, the ability to feel intense sexual arousal and attraction, decide whether and how to act on those feelings (informed by whether or not I have the enthusiastic consent of a partner), and compose a blog post about how this works for me. For another example, the ability to feel intense rage and betrayal, and decide to channel these feelings into the vocal performance of a revenge aria.

This is how I experience my own agency and power. I can enjoy expressing my own power without deliberately imposing my will on others without their consent, perhaps even in a way that inspires others to experience and express their own power, too.

If you are wondering why a voice teacher is blogging about sex, the reason is because I want to, and I can.

Vocal expression is powerful. So I cultivate my voice, and help others cultivate theirs, in the hope that our individual and collective voices can facilitate the empowerment and positive evolution of humanity.

The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is effectively a sexual assault on all US women. It is an attack on women’s sexual agency. It nullifies our right to consent over what is done to and with our bodies.

I belong to the first, and now potentially last, generation of women who came of age in an era where we enjoyed comparatively easy access to contraception and family planning (at least for someone with my level of privilege and education). The availability of a reliable means of avoiding pregnancy, and a safe and legal way to terminate a pregnancy should those means fail, meant that women were well on their way to equal footing with men, for arguably the first time in our human evolution. Access to contraception and family planning renders us free to enjoy and express our sexuality without having our lives derailed by an unplanned pregnancy. Roe v. Wade enshrined the right to this access into law. It affirmed our agency to create the professional and family lives we desire for ourselves. Just like men.

Make no mistake: Women in the US are collectively experiencing an assault on our agency, perpetrated by those “in power” who feel entitled to subjugate us to their will. But while they may seem very powerful, and they may succeed in doing tremendous harm to many of us, it is absolutely vital for us to understand that this is not real power. The Faustian bargain always promises real power, but it always enslaves and destroys those who fall for it.

Real power derives from the agency to feel your feelings and express your experiences. Real power means cultivating a deep identification with your own humanity, that in turn enables you to resonate with the essential humanity of all others.

Achieving this kind of power requires tremendous courage, because it carries the responsibility to speak truth to the false power that manifests in our subjugation, sexual and otherwise.

Find your voice.

Embrace your power.

Woman up.


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